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1541 – The First Europeans Enter the Amazon Basin

first colonialists amazon

In 1541 Spanish conquistador Francisco de Orellana led the first European colonists into the Amazon. He reported seeing dense populations and large cities of the Omagua empire along the Amazon River. Within a few decades, the dense populations of these cities and other cities throughout the Amazon Basin were wiped out by epidemics. The cities were made primarily with wood which decayed and disappeared and Orellana’s reports of Amazonian civilizations were dismissed as delusional.

In the latter half of the twentieth century, archaeological discoveries were made confirming that there were Pre-Columbian earth builders and complex civilizations throughout the Amazon Basin whose way of life enhanced the biodiversity of the region. As the researchers explain, there is no “pristine” Amazon Rainforest left in 1541 because the indigenous population had selectively managed the environment for thousands of years. The new research also suggests that possibly 10 million people were living in the Amazon during during its peak, which collapsed upon contact with European colonists, entrepreneurs, and missionaries. Contemporary Amazonian peoples mostly descend from peoples who lived far from dense population centers and major trade routes and are from remnant populations who joined together to create new identities and cultures.

Given that the devastating diseases introduced by European colonialists were particularly viral among larger civilizations and social organization, the smaller groups living up tributaries of main rivers were more protected. For instance, the Shipibo, an indigenous group famous today for their master ayahuasca healers, were historically living in basic forms of social organization up the tributaries of Ucayali river and away from the large societies on the larger rivers. The traditions of ayahuasca use that exist among indigenous peoples today have emerged from a complex and devastating colonial history that helped spread ayahuasca. Despite the agency of natives, there is no doubt that European colonialists had a tragic impact upon the original inhabitants of the Amazon. Yet, some native groups in urban centers such as Manus, Iquitos, and Pucallpa are thriving and innovating their culture like everyone else around the world has been doing since time immemorial.

Some of the first writings we have about ayahuasca came from the notes of Jesuit missionaries in the 1600s. But for the most part, their diabolical fears didn’t allow the brew easy entry into the European imagination. Such an entry had to wait until the mid 1800s when botanist Richard Spruce or geographer Manuel Villavicencio experimented with the brew themselves and describe tales of frightening apparitions and cosmic journeys through the sky.


Balee, William, & Erickson, Clark. (2006) Time and Complexity in Historical Ecology: Studies in the Neotropical Lowlands. Columbia University Press: Historical Ecology Series.

Erickson, Clark (2008). “Amazonia: The Historical Ecology of a Domesticated Landscape.” In The Handbook of South American Archaeology (pp.157-183). Springer.

Foreiro, Juan (2011). “Amazon Digs Indicate Advanced Indian Civilizations.” NPR Morning Edition, Jan. 12, 2011.

Grann, David (2010). “Under the Jungle.” The New Yorker, January 7, 2010.

Highpine, Gayle (2014). “The Ecological Zones of the Amazon Basin and the Civilizations that Grew From Them.” Ayahuasca.com website.

Levy, Buddy (2011). River of Darkness: Francisco Orellana’s Legendary Voyage of Death and Discovery Down the Amazon. Bantam.

Stern, Steve J. (1993). Peru’s Indian Peoples and the Challenge of Spanish Conquest: Huamanga to 1640 (Second edition) University of Wisconsin Press.

Susanti, Indah (n.d.). “Exploring the Ancient Life of the Omaguas, Amazonian People” (El Coca, Ecuador). Indahs website.

No author given (2018). “Los omaguas, una cultura perdida en ríos amazónicos.” El Universo, Guayaquil, Ecuador. El Universo website.

Ayahuasca Timeline – Previous and Next (Sample)

1.25 Million Years Ago – The Evolutionary Emergence of the Ayahuasca Vine, Banisteriopsis
Unknown Date – The Origins of Ayahuasca Use
Unknown Date – Synergy Discovered Between Ayahuasca Vine and DMT- Containing Plants
1541 – The First Europeans Enter the Amazon Basin
1648-1768 – The First Written Reports of Ayahuasca Made by Jesuit Missionaries
1840s – Harmaline and Harmine Are Isolated from the Seeds of Peganum harmala (Syrian rue)

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